Bookstores Regain Ground as Consumers Seek In-Person Engagement

bookstores, retail, brick and mortar

Consumers’ shift to eCommerce has not killed the bookstore yet. From industry giants’ recoveries to the reemergence of independent players in the space, the bookstore continues to serve a valuable need for many consumers.

Barnes & Noble, which has had its challenges and which continues to “evaluate a range of options to strengthen its liquidity and financial position,” per the company’s earnings report Tuesday (March 12), has seen retail sales improve. The chain reported that its retail segment’s comparable store sales were up 8.8% in Q3 fiscal 2024, led by strength in course materials.

“The focus got back to the people who sell books. Barnes & Noble had brought in a lot of professional retailers, but professional retailers don’t make very good booksellers,” Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt recently told Fortune. “If you apply many of those retail principles to selling books, things tend to go wrong. In many areas of retail, they just kill customer service. We now have people focused on servicing the stores and are empowering employees themselves to do what they regard as best.”

Plus, independent bookstores continue to open up around the world. The American Booksellers Association (ABA), a nonprofit trade group for independently owned bookstores, reported that it represents more than 2,500 stores. It seems that the number of these stores is on the rise, as according to data highlighted by WordsRated, there were only 1,701 independent bookstores as of 2021.

This growth comes in spite of the ongoing challenges that small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) face.

The report “Main Street Health Q4 2023: eCommerce Protects Main Street SMBs’ Bottom Line in a Cooling Market,” a PYMNTS Intelligence and Enigma collaboration, which drew from a survey of 540 SMBs with brick-and-mortar shops in commercial districts across the United States, revealed that only 38% of Main Street SMBs that sell mostly in a physical store saw their revenue increase last year. In contrast, 42% of these businesses saw revenue stay relatively flat, and 20% saw it decrease.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores have capitalized on the resurgence of interest in physical books and the growing demand for immersive, sensory experiences. Unlike online retailers, they offer a tactile browsing experience that cannot be replicated in the digital realm. The opportunity to peruse shelves, discover hidden gems, and engage with knowledgeable staff fosters a sense of serendipity and connection that online shopping lacks.

Indeed, PYMNTS Intelligence research confirms that, in categories more strongly associated with the physical, tactile experience, consumers are less likely to step up their digital engagement.

For instance, last year’s report “Tracking the Digital Payments Takeover: Catching the Coming eCommerce Wave,” created in collaboration with Amazon Web Services, which drew from a census-balanced survey of nearly 2,700 U.S. consumers, revealed that shoppers are less likely to step up their eCommerce purchasing of hobby items than of beauty products or clothing.

Another crucial factor contributing to the resilience of brick-and-mortar bookstores is their emphasis on community engagement and localism. These establishments serve as cultural hubs where book lovers, authors, and enthusiasts can come together to celebrate literature and intellectual exchange. Through book signings, author readings, book clubs and other events, brick-and-mortar bookstores cultivate a sense of belonging and camaraderie that transcends transactional relationships.

Indeed, shoppers continue to want to engage with physical stores. PYMNTS Intelligence’s study “2024 Global Digital Shopping Index: The Rise of the Click-and-Mortar™ Shopper and What It Means for Merchants,” commissioned by Visa Acceptance Solutions and drawing from a survey of nearly 14,000 consumers, revealed that only 29% of shoppers prefer to shop purely via eCommerce channels without interacting with stores. This share is down from its 2020 peak of 34%.